Wednesday, February 07, 2018

India supports Palestine with key interests in mind

Just what persuaded the US to announce, on December 6, that it was recognising Jerusalem as Israel's eternal capital is not very clear. Some say it was a fulfilment of a campaign promise by President Trump. Others hint darkly that it was deal with the pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson who had donated $ 20 million for the Trump campaign. But it did put New Delhi in a spot of bother. 

On December 19, the US vetoed a resolution in the UN Security Council calling on Trump to withdraw his recognition. All other 14 members including UK and France supported the resolution. 

Then on December 21, came a stronger rebuke when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution denouncing the US move. As many as 128 countries voted for the resolution with just 9 including the US opposing and 35 abstentions. India came through, as one of those who supported the resolution. 

But it may have been a near run thing. Following Trump's announcement, there was a distinct waffle in New Delhi's position. 
The ideological Modi government puts much store on its relations with Israel. In his visit there earlier this year, Modi pointedly refused to visit Ramallah, the capital of Palestine. On December 7, the official spokesman issued a bland statement that "India's position on Palestine is independent and consistent... and not determined by any third country." 

The ideological Modi government puts much store on its relations with Israel. In his visit there earlier this year, Modi pointedly refused to visit Ramallah, the capital of Palestine. On December 7, the official spokesman issued a bland statement that "India's position on Palestine is independent and consistent... and not determined by any third country." 

He didn't quite spell out what it was. In his weekly media briefing on December 21, on the eve of the vote, too, the spokesman dodged the question of the prospective Indian vote, and just repeated his non sequitur of the previous fortnight. So, it was indeed, something of a surprise when India voted along traditional lines in support of Palestine. Perhaps it did so following the lobbying by Arab ambassadors, or maybe, it was an outcome of a careful calculation of national interests trumping ideology. 

In an era when Saudi Arabia and Israel are collaborating, it perhaps is too much to expect countries to take a stand on the Palestinian issue on the basis of ideology. Even Canada and Mexico which tamely abstained have let it be known that their position was, to an extent, based on their ongoing negotiations with the US on the North America Free Trade Agreement. It would, of course, have been embarrassing to have been in the list of those supporting the US—two Central American countries and Palau, Toga, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Israel.  

Indian interests in the Persian Gulf region are paramount. That is from where we get 70 per cent of our oil, and where 7 million of our citizens labour and send back remittances of around $35 billion per annum, three times more than the rich NRIs send from the US. 

Modi's own diplomacy has added another dimension to the relationship. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority has put $ 1billion into the special HDFC affordable housing scheme, $1billion in the NIIF and $300 million in a renewable energy project, all in this year. 

The stinging rebuke to the US on Jerusalem has come at a time when Washington has been criticising countries that it says do not want a "rule based international order" such as s Russia which grabbed Crimea and China which has trashed the UNCLOS. Yet, the US, which has itself not ratified the UNCLOS, has no hesitation in taking a decision which shreds the international law on Jerusalem. As of today, the legal position is that East Jerusalem is part of occupied Palestinian territory. There are seven operative UNSC resolutions condemning the attempted annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel. 

The US has abstained on most of them. However they determine the legal position that the status of East Jerusalem is yet to be decided under international law. 

And this is the law that the Trump Administration has wilfully defied through its action. 

New Delhi has done well to maintain its traditional position on the issue. Consistency may well be the virtue of an ass, but in international relations, it also provides for credibility. As the global hegemon, the US the US can get away with a lot, not so a poor South Asian country, no matter how big. 

Economic Times December 23, 2017

What Trump’s New National Security Strategy Means For India

India, in the new report, falls squarely in the “opportunity” category, rather than in that of “threats” or even “competition” for the US.

US President Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters
Indian reports of the Trump administration’s recently released new National Security Strategy (NSS) are over the top. India’s designation as a “leading global power” caught the attention of some Indian newspapers. “We appreciate the importance given to India-United States relationship” the official spokesman exulted, noting that “the two responsible democracies…share the same objectives.”
It is, however, important to put the words of the document in a proper perspective to understand that the new American NSS and the very obvious contradictions between its words and the practice of the Trump administration in the past year. As an National Security Council (NSC) staffer noted, it was not clear whether the president had actually read the entire 55-page document. Donald Trump’s policy making is often through early morning tweets, and he has said in the context of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “I call the final shots.”
So, with this caveat, let us see where India figures in all this besides being told that it will get support to become a “leading power”. One thing is clear, in contrast to the villains of the NSS – China and Russia – India is in a sweet spot. It falls squarely in the “opportunity” category, rather than in that of “threats” or even “competition” that the US says it otherwise confronts.
The American goal, the NSS says, is to prevent unfavourable shifts in its various regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and Middle East. So, it will nuance its regional strategies to ensure American primacy.
Even so, there is some ambiguity here. India is a priority area which deserves support for “its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.” But, when it comes to the specifics, the document notes that the Indo-Pacific “stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the US.” This, of course, could be a rhetorical description of the region.

Also read: Why India Should Be Wary of the Quad

But neither in the document, nor otherwise, does the most important external area of Indian concern – the Persian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea – fit into the Indo-US conversation. India is seen primarily in terms of the balance of power in relation to South East Asia and the Western Pacific Ocean. In fact, when it comes to the Middle East, besides not figuring in US calculations, India may find itself on the wrong side since the NSS goal is to “neutralise Iran’s malign activities in the region.”
For Pakistan, there is tough love. The US says it is seeking a Pakistan that “is not engaged in destabilising behaviour” and defines the principal US goal as the need to prevent terrorist threats that impact the security of the US homeland and of its allies. It also seeks to prevent “cross border terrorism that raises the prospect of military and nuclear tensions” and in line with this, it declares that “an Indo-Pakistan military conflict that could lead to nuclear exchange remains a key concern requiring consistent diplomatic attention.”
The NSS says that the US “will help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region.” New Delhi would be advised to carefully study the implications of these formulations. One positive takeaway is that the NSS seeks to promote South Asian and Central Asian economic linkages, connectivity and trade. This would be good news for India and the region, but it remains to be seen if the US can persuade Islamabad to lift its blockade of India.
The Trump administration deserves credit for bringing out the NSS in its very first year and this is an effort to transit the administration “from campaigning to governing”. This is also the first time that a president himself has introduced his NSS, rather than leaving it to his officials. In line with the president’s beliefs, the new strategy seeks to provide a strategic gloss to the “America First” vision. It does not seek to build democracy elsewhere or champion issues like multipolarity or climate change which were an important part of the NSS of the Bush and Obama administrations.
In  a break from past iterations of the NSS, the Trump NSS rejects the idea that the US can change its rivals through a process of engagement. Instead, it offers a bleak vision of a global battle place where the US seeks to preserve itself from the actions of  “revisionist” powers like China and Russia who have no intention of becoming “benign actors and trustworthy partners.”  The two were challenging American power and influence and “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

To counter them, a “fortress America” must be established to  protect the homeland, its prosperity and to advance its influence. Where cooperation with allies and economic partners was a key element of the Obama or Bush-era NSS, Trump insists that this must happen in a framework advantageous to the US.
But as critics have pointed out, there is a huge gap between what the administration says and what it has been doing so far: Despite tough talk on China and Russia, the Trump administration is engaging them. In the case of Moscow, it states in the NSS that “actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine democracies,” but it is doing little to punish the Russians.
Even while attacking China for seeking to “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region”, the US has, by walking out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, undermined the basis of a push back. In any case, the US has been cooperating with Beijing to deal with North Korea, even while striking massive business deals with it. The NSS says that the national debt is a grave threat, but the administration is supporting the passage of a tax cut which will add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the debt. Even while proclaiming as it does in the NSS that it will champion American values such as liberty, freedom of religion and speech, in practice, the administration has gone out of its way to embrace authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Even so in the US, such documents provide guidance to a sprawling administration and bind all of them to work towards particular goals. The NSS is a congressionally-mandated document which acts as a mission statement of an incumbent administration on a range of issues relating to global issues and engagement as its military posture.
Whatever be the sanctity of the NSS, in Trump’s hands, it means little. While his advisers, all top-rated people like secretary of defence James Mattis, NSA McMaster or Tillerson seek to work American strategy along realist lines, the president can and does turn things inside out. So, the  chances that the US works along a coherent and credible national security strategy are not very high.
The Wire December 20, 2017

Why India-Nepal ties are likely to worsen

The election victory of a coalition of two Communist parties in the recent elections in Nepal signals difficult days for Indo-Nepal relations. The coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) led by Puspa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) led by KP Sharma Oli is on track to win the majority of the seats in the 275-member Parliament, six of the seven new provincial assemblies and a majority of the 753 new local councils.
Madhesi factor
The scale of the defeat of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress is staggering. The Left coalition can end up capturing 70 per cent of the 165 seats allotted in the firstpast the post system. The royalists backed by a section of the Sangh Parivar in India is likely to get just one such seat. By all accounts, the Nepali Congress ran a lacklustre campaign and its efforts to ally with Madhesi parties did not work out.
None of this means that the issues the Madhesi parties had raised — that of discrimination against their region, Dalits, women and other minority groups — have gone away. Or the fact that Nepal has been a poor, misgoverned country whose main export is manpower to India and other destinations.
The outcome is bound to have significant foreign policy implications for Nepal. Oli, who was replaced as Prime Minister by Prachanda in 2016 allegedly through New Delhi’s machinations, is bitterly anti-Indian. He is likely to return as prime minister.
Nepal has seen almost continuous turmoil, physical and political, in the past two decades. First, there was the Maoist insurgency, which led to the deaths of nearly 20,000 people. Then came the prolonged political wrangling that has seen nearly 10 prime ministers in as many years. A devastating series of earthquakes caused a great deal of physical and psychological damage to the nation. There were expectations that after the adoption of Nepal’s Constitution, things would stabilise, but it was not to be.
Madhesi groups living in the Terai region mobilised against what they said was a Constitution which was discriminatory to them and they instituted blockades on key roads connecting India. The Nepali elites, however, blamed New Delhi for the blockade which denied medicines, construction material and fuel to help Nepal’s recovery from the devastation of the earthquakes.
The decisive nature of the victory is good news for Nepal which now has a government which cannot be voted out for two years. It also has a comfortable majority which should promote stability. However, its performance will depend, first, on the manner in which the coalition functions, and secondly, the way it deals with its two giant neighbours – India and China.
The new government does confront a major challenge with regard to its internal coherence. They may be Communist parties, but like all such formations, they are strong on ideological issues, and equally tend to get divided on them. Both Oli and Prachanda are powerful and capable leaders, and this could lead to either efficient government by them or a dissonance leading to political instability.
Almost certainly, the new government will reverse Deuba’s decision to cancel an award to a Chinese company to develop a large hydroelectric project, which included the building of a dam on the Budi Gandaki river. In November 2017, the Deuba government said the project which was awarded in the wake of Nepal’s decision to join the One Belt One Road scheme, was being cancelled because of alleged irregularities by the Chinese company Gezhouba Group.
Security concern
We should not get needlessly distracted by the China versus India scenarios that are being put forward. Both Oli and Prachanda are known to be pragmatic and will seek to maximise assistance from India and China. Which is as it should be — Nepal occupies a strategic position and it should exploit it to its own benefit. If the Chinese are willing to invest in Nepal’s infrastructure, India should not be too concerned.
The reason is very simple. No matter how you look at it, Nepal is locked into a close relationship with India through history and culture. More important, no amount of Chinese investment and infrastructure can change the tyranny of geography. The high Himalayan limit, the intercourse that is possible between Tibet and Nepal, whereas through treaty and custom, India allows millions of Nepalis to work and own property in the country without any permit or document.
Given the recent past, security is a major concern for India. The Indo-Nepal border is virtually open and lightly policed. If Kathmandu does not heed Indian concerns, it will have to confront New Delhi’s ire. But this said, India too needs to back off from viewing its relationship with Nepal only through the lenses of security and see how it can further them in terms of economic integration and partnership.
Mail Today December 18, 2017

In his attempt to win elections, Narendra Modi does not seem bound by propriety – or even dignity

It would take a certain kind of thought process to suggest that the presence of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari at a dinner where the Pakistani High Commissioner to India and a former Pakistan foreign minister were also in attendance, was some kind of a secret gathering related to the ongoing Gujarat Assembly elections. Clearly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has that kind of a mind.
Modi’s accusations – made during an election rally in Gujarat on Sunday – have a touch of the sinister, and, coming from the Prime Minister of India, are deeply troubling.
He also claimed that a person called Sardar Arshad Rafiq, a retired Pakistani military officer, had called for Ahmed Patel, the political secretary of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, to become the chief minister of Gujarat. Simultaneously, Modi alleged that it was following this dinner, which was hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar, that the Congress leader called him “neech” or a low-life.
A professor posted on social media that this is what a spurious correlation is all about. A website hosted by a Harvard student has shown how easy it is to come up with correlations between completely unrelated events. For instance, the website has charts showing that there is a correlation between the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool and the films Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage appeared in, and between the per capita consumption of cheese in the US and the number of people who died by getting tangled in their bedsheets.

The contentious dinner

As the Indian Express has reported, there was indeed a gathering at Aiyar’s house on December 6. But this was a dinner in honour of the former foreign minister of Pakistan, Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri. Present at the occasion were Manmohan Singh, Hamid Ansari, the Pakistan High Commissioner to India, former Army chief Deepak Kapoor, former foreign minister Natwar Singh, senior retired diplomats and former high commissioners of India to Pakistan – Salman Haidar, TCA Raghavan, Sharat Sabharwal and KS Bajpai.
Such a dinner is perfectly normal, especially since Aiyar is involved in the Track-II diplomacy process with Pakistan. These talks, outside the ambit of the official dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad, have long been a fixture in the landscape of India-Pakistan relations.
Perhaps it will also be useful to recall that on December 25, 2015, Prime Minister Modi dropped in at a party in Lahore thrown by Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister, and no one accused him of anything else but naiveté.

A new low

If there indeed was a conspiracy to subvert the election process in Gujarat, it is the duty of the government to immediately arrest anyone who is seeking to do so, even if that person is the former prime minister, vice-president or Army chief. As of now, there has been no follow-up action by Indian authorities
Instead, Manmohan Singh issued a sharp statement on Monday, saying that the Gujarat elections were not discussed at the dinner hosted by Aiyar, and that Modi was spreading falsehoods about Pakistan meddling in the Gujarat polls. “I reject the innuendos and falsehoods as I did not discuss Gujarat elections with anyone else at the dinner hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar as alleged by Modi,” Singh said. “Nor was the Gujarat issue raised by anyone else present at the dinner. The discussion was confined to India-Pakistan relations.”
As for Sardar Arshad Rafiq, his Facebook page is public, and there does not seem to be any trace of his alleged appeal to make Ahmed Patel the Gujarat chief minister. Rafiq, though, does have a post from a friend ribbing him about his new-found fame in India, and another mourning the passing of veteran Indian actor Shashi Kapoor.
One of the downsides of democracy is that during elections the contestants seek to divide the electorate. Ideally, this is done on the basis of the different policy options that the candidates offer, and their qualifications to fulfil their promises. The reality in India, however, is that this division is more often than not sought on the basis of caste, creed and ethnicity.
But even by the standards of electoral rhetoric, Modi’s recent performance in Gujarat is a new low. In these fraught times, perhaps it is necessary to point out that the term “low” does not refer to Modi’s background and origins, but to the personality trait that allows the prime minister not to feel bound by any propriety or dignity when it comes to winning elections. Even though Modi has repeatedly declared that he does not want office for the sake of power, that is precisely what he seems to be seeking.

Election dog whistles

Muslims and Pakistan are Modi’s favourite bugbears. He came to power in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra train massacre, which had led to widespread violence against Muslims in the state. In the election that took place after these tragedies, Modi berated “Mian Musharraf”. This was not so much a reference to the Pakistani general as it was code for the state’s Muslim population – an attempt to pit the majority of the population against the minority.
Modi’s style was evident from the manner in which he dissed the directives of the Election Commission, then headed by JM Lyngdoh. In his speeches, Modi always referred to the polling official with his full name, James Michael Lyngdoh, thus underscoring his Christian faith.
The 2012 state assembly elections was the first time Modi used the “Ahmed Patel for Chief Minister” card to polarise voters against the Muslims. This time the term “mian” was used as a suffix, as in “Ahmed mian”, almost suggesting that Patel was being supported for the office of chief minister by a former Pakistani general. Ahmed Patel has as much a right to become the chief minister of Gujarat as any other Indian national. It is also clear that Modi’s reference to Patel as “mian” is more of a tactic to scare voters about the possibility of a Muslim chief minister rather than something that has any basis in reality.

Invoking Pakistan

What is really alarming here is the use of Pakistan to marginalise Muslim voters in an Indian state. Even in 2002, Modi projected himself as the man who would save Gujarat from terrorism and “Mian Musharraf”.
In the past two years, notwithstanding claims that the only thing that he seeks is development, Modi has raised the rhetoric against terrorism and Pakistan to a high, even though actual instances of terrorism – attacks on unarmed civilians – have sharply declined since the attack on Mumbai in November 2008.
Modi has used the attacks on security forces in Pathankot in January 2016, and in Uri in September that year, to call for Pakistan to be labelled as a state sponsor of terrorism. The hysteria that was aroused over the so-called surgical strikes against Pakistani positions on the Line of Control at the end of September 2016 was blatantly used to harvest votes in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections five months later.
That Modi is playing politics with surgical strikes is evident from the fact that he returned to the theme again at an election rally on Sunday, when he attacked Manmohan Singh for not conducting surgical strikes on Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack. Why Singh did not do so is not known, but such issues are hardly things that are debated in public. If every executive action has to be measured by Modi’s macho standards, a question could perhaps be asked as to why the Modi government did not react to last November’s attack on India’s 16 Corps headquarters at Nagrota in Jammu and Kashmir, which took place exactly two months after the surgical strikes. Seven soldiers, including two officers, were killed in that attack. It was a much more serious incident than the one in Uri since Nagrota is a Corps headquarters and quite far from the Line of Control unlike Uri, which is a stone’s throw away.
None of this is a good augury for the country.
The Scroll December 12, 2017

New player in East Asia: Modi must fill the gaps in Trump’s Indo-Pacific vision

In early June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to address the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. High level Indian guests have so far stayed away from Asia’s premier defence related summit promoted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies or IISS of UK.
Given the nature of the meeting and its location, Modi will not miss the opportunity to detail India’s perspectives on the Indo-Pacific region. Our partners in the revitalised Quadrilateral grouping – the US, Australia and Japan – are always a strong presence at the Shangri-La Dialogue, using it as a sounding board for ideas and policies.
At the 2016 Dialogue, US defence secretary Ashton Carter outlined the “principled security networks” that the US was seeking to create in the Asia-Pacific region to promote a “rules based international order”. The mechanisms envisaged were US-led trilateral and bilateral military relationships which would hem in China as it sought to expand its writ in the region.
In recent months, the Trump administration, which walked out of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has articulated its nascent strategy. It has taken ownership of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific and thereby stretched the US strategic perspective by pointedly introducing the Indian Ocean into it. When looked at from the former Asia-Pacific formulation, China loomed large; now, in the Indo-Pacific, it looks somewhat smaller since India is in the equation. At present, this is at a conceptual level and it remains to be seen how the new US National Security Strategy, expected to be released soon, will flesh it out.
Some aspects of this have been visible in secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s attack on China for its “predatory economics” and his call for “transparent, high standard regional lending mechanisms” to save smaller regional states from the debt trap of Chinese financing.
Many critics say that the differences between the Obama-era ‘pivot to Asia’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ formulation are minor from the military point of view. By walking out of TPP, the US has actually kicked away the trade, finance and investment leg of any Indo-Pacific strategy.
Militarily, the US-led Quad is way ahead of China. What are needed are alternative financing mechanisms to add muscle to the principled security networks. Here Japan and the US have to play a key role. Tokyo already has a big Official Development Assistance programme. It is the US that needs to come up with new ideas. Perhaps, to reinvent the World Bank and its old instrumentalities like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the ExIm Bank to leverage its huge private sector resources.
Just how will Modi play these issues? Clearly, the time has come for India to bat. For too long India has been the tea boy in the match. By his temperament, Modi is a front-foot player who changed the nomenclature of India’s old policy towards the region from Look East to Act East. But there is a question as to what India can bring to the game.
India has long aspired to play the role of a big power and hasn’t done too badly, considering it didn’t have much but ideas and rhetoric to offer. For the past decade, New Delhi has been free-riding on Uncle Sam’s back, but the Trump administration is not quite built that way and will want New Delhi to play a tangible role in its policy.
But perhaps we should not worry too much. Look carefully and you will see that ideas championed by Indians form a significant component of the new American policy. It was foreign secretary S Jaishankar who first raised the warning signals on the nature of China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s financing. New Delhi’s boycott of the BRI Forum underscored this. Though it is the Japanese who have pushed the Indo-Pacific concept, strategic analyst C Raja Mohan has been fleshing it out since 2007.
No doubt, by the time Modi takes the bat, he will be well coached. Hopefully, he will fill the large gaps that remain in the Indo-Pacific vision envisaged by the Trump team and keep his focus on this country’s interests which also need to ensure that the ‘Indo’ part of the formulation does not get ignored, as it is currently.
Times of India, December 9, 2017

On Jerusalem, Modi Government is Putting Ideology Over National Interest

Bandwagoning with the US cannot be a substitute for a working foreign policy in our own region and near abroad.

Protests break out in Palestine after President Trump's announcement of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Salem
Protests break out in Palestine after President Trump’s announcement of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Salem
To say that the Indian response to the unilateral American declaration recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was pusillanimous is to be polite. What the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs said was a non sequitur: “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country.”
But just what this position is was not spelt out, nor the fact that howsoever independent and consistent one’s position may be, it most certainly is affected by a third country – especially when that country happens to be the mighty United States.
Most countries, even friends and allies of the US and Israel, have issued more categorical statements. Singapore, for example, made it clear that any unilateral action would impede progress for a peaceful resolution of the Middle East and Palestinian problem. It reiterated its support for the two-state solution and added that “the future of Jerusalem should be decided through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
As for the European Union, it said its position remained unchanged: “The aspirations of both parties must be fulfilled and a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.”
The Chinese spokesman bluntly outlined Beijing’s support for a negotiated settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute which would benefit regional peace and stability and be based on a “full sovereignty” Palestinian state “with East Jerusalem as its capital.” This was in line with what President Xi Jinping declared in a major speech to the Arab League in Cairo in January 2016.
There was a time in the 1950s when India played a larger than life role in world affairs. It was not a matter of our military power; it had none. Nor of its economic clout, since we were among the poorest countries in the world. It was about leadership and ideas and that somewhat undefinable thing called integrity. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s advocacy of non-alignment gave the developing world an alternative to the binary of the US-Soviet contest and ensured that we did not get involved in their proxy bush wars. Its ultimate success was in the near-universal adherence it gained from most developing countries in the world. Nehruvian non-alignment was also pragmatic –India secured massive quantities of US economic aid to assist its development, even while equipping its military with weaponry from the Eastern Bloc obtained at “friendship prices.” It also required courage, such as in developing nuclear capacity and refusing to be herded into regimes like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the face of multiple sanctions by the US.
Non-alignment meandered away from relevance in the 1980s and lost its raison d’etre the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, but it provided India with a framework policy which served us well.
The framework of the Modi-era foreign policy is not very clear. There is certainly great energy in the prime minister who has toured most of the world. But just what India, which looms far larger in terms of its economic and military standing, represents today is not clear. The BJP may have an ideological preference for Israel, but that should not trump national interests. Who will deny that peace and stability in the Middle East is, perhaps, the most important imperative of Indian foreign policy, and that it will be adversely affected by the dynamics that Trump’s policies will unleash?
Some 70% of our oil comes from the region, seven million of our citizens work there. Four times in recent history, India has had to evacuate its nationals from the region; in 1990 from Kuwait, Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. The US decision, against international consensus, could well stoke off further instability in the volatile region and lead to yet another bout of Islamist radicalism – all matters of direct concern for India.
Elsewhere too, the drift is evident
That Indian policy is faltering because of the lack of a coherent structure is evident also from the happenings in Myanmar. We are of course, familiar with our waffling on the Rohingya issue. Again, something that concerns us directly because it has the ability to destabilise our neighbourhood via Bangladesh. As Suhasini Haidar wrote in the Hindu, India has dithered on the issue even while the US, European Union and Singapore have sought to find a way out of the crisis. Once again, the BJP’s ideological position viz. its attitude towards Muslims, seems to have dictated its policy, rather than national interests which would demand an active role by New Delhi to reverse the flow of refugees who could affect India and undermine the stability of our neighbour.
Ironically, as Haidar points out, the Chinese have taken the lead in trying to resolve the crisis. Following a visit by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to Naypidaw and Dhaka, Myanmar and Bangladesh reached an agreement to repatriate refugees back to the Rakhine state. Of course, China has also defended the Myanmar government and helped in watering down UN pressure. China is working along its national interests. It has substantial economic interests in the Rakhine State where it has developed the Kyaukpyu port and from where it transports gas and oil to its Yunan province. It is set to enhance its investments in the region and so, it is seeking stability there. Whether China’s activism works or not, only time will show, but what is clear is that India is marked by its absence in a crisis which can have direct effects on its security.
In line with the perspective of stabilising a neighbouring region, in the past year, China has sought to play a mediatory role in Myanmar to resolve conflicts between the state and its ethnic minorities. In March 2017, its representatives set up meetings with the United Wa State Army, the largest armed ethnic group in Myanmar, as well as with the Northern Alliance comprising of a slew of groups like the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Kachin Independence Army.
The decision to play a mediatory role is a new phase in Chinese policy which otherwise famously avoids getting involved in internal issues of its interlocutor countries. But with its new Belt and Road Initiative, China has realised that non-involvement is a luxury it may not be able to afford for too long. If there were important economic and strategic interests in a region, Beijing no longer has the option of standing by as a crisis develops.
To come back to the Modi era. The prime minister began with a strong commitment to anchor India’s foreign policy to strong ties with our neighbours in South Asia. Today as we do the sums we find that the Pakistan and China parts of the ledger are in the red. We are missing in action in Myanmar and Bangladesh and neither here nor there in Sri Lanka. As for Maldives, the recent Chinese free trade agreement points to India’s impotence. That leaves Nepal. The victory of the alliance led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) is a major setback which will have serious implications for India-Nepal relations.
All this is an ironical consequence of a government in New Delhi that sought to move away from the past and promised a new era in foreign policy. In part this is a result of pursuing ideological goals, rather than national interests, and in part because Modi simply lacks a strategic framework upon which to build policy. Bandwagoning with the US is no substitute for a working policy in our own region and near abroad.
The Wire December 10, 2017